After firing Lane Kiffin, USC’s next play is big: hiring right coach

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The final night of Lane Kiffin’s USC head coaching career began in beauty, desert temperatures dropping, the sky above Arizona State’s Sun Devil Stadium shimmering, the excited murmurs of fans hurriedly filling the stands dressed in shorts and flip-flops.

It looked as if the only person not bathed in hope was Pat Haden.

As the Trojans jogged through their pregame routine, Haden stood forlornly on the sidelines with his USC cap tucked low on his head and his hands stuck deep in his pockets. He wasn’t doing his usual meeting and greeting. He was just staring, wearily, unsmiling, as if only four games into the 2013 season he had seen enough.

“You can tell, this Kiffin stuff has really taken its toll on him,” said a bystander.

Four hours later, that toll was finally exacted. Kiffin was fired by an athletic director who ultimately agreed with the overwhelming majority of his constituents.


Haden, it seemed, could no longer bear to watch USC play football.

The Trojans football culture is as visceral as it is vicious, as much about Hollywood as head-banging, yet Kiffin never took his nose out of his play card long enough to understand.

The Trojans football culture is about an internal swagger, yet Kiffin’s off-the-field exploits with deflated footballs and phony uniform numbers reeked of an internal smarminess.

The Trojans football culture is about being smarter when you cannot be stronger, yet Kiffin’s play-calling often hurt the team far more than any scholarship ban.

The Trojans football culture is about always competing — former coach Pete Carroll nailed that one — yet four of Kiffin’s final seven losses were by double digits, and in two of those games his teams allowed 62 points.

Even for a forgiving sort like Haden, who inherited Kiffin yet still vociferously supported him for 3 1/2 seasons, the Trojans had become unwatchable.

The firing was not designed to ruin Lane Kiffin, but to save USC football.

“We realize our history has been great and we need to be great again,” Haden said during a Sunday news conference.


There has been much wondering about which moment on Saturday night finally finished Kiffin. There are many possible moments, but a good guess might be the fourth-and-one pass thrown out of the wildcat formation by running back Tre Madden with the Trojans trailing by 20 late in the third quarter. It was a play called by someone who had lost all contact with the pulse of his team. Madden thew a wobbler that was intercepted, and four plays later the Sun Devils scored to put the game out of reach.

“At the end of the day, it became a gut feeling that we weren’t making the progress that I felt we needed to make, that I thought we should be making,” said Haden. “It’s never the perfect time to do these things, but I felt it was the right time.”

Kiffin, a tireless worker who deserves credit for going 10-2 in 2011 and temporarily steadying the program in the wake of probation, politely declined to comment for this column. But surely even he would admit that what USC football is, he isn’t. The Kiffin failure should remind USC of exactly what it needs to succeed.

Call the upcoming search, “Finding Pete.”

Although Haden will have difficulty duplicating Mike Garrett’s hiring of Pete Carroll, he showed he understands the importance of a Carroll-like aura by naming former Carroll assistant Ed Orgeron as the interim boss.

Orgeron is Pete without the slick. He is raw voice, raw emotion, running motor, the sort of guy to infuse the program with the Pete passion it so desperately needs. He is the anti-Kiff.

Said Haden: “This is supposed to be a game of fun and joy. One of the things we’re looking for in Ed is to bring that fun and joy back into the game of college football.”


Said Orgeron: “I’m going to have some energy, some excitement, high-fiving guys, having fun.”

USC needs to begin its search with that sort of emotion, channeled through someone who has the smarts and savvy to run what is essentially considered an NFL-type program.

This is a program that needs a coach who walks the sideline as if he owns it, treats the program with respect, and makes certain that his team will — here’s that phrase again — always compete.

It is silly to target former USC players simply because they are former USC players. Just because they once played there doesn’t mean they can deal with the current climate. It is also silly to target only big-name former NFL guys simply because they coached on Sunday. The difficulties in recruiting can turn a former great NFL coach into an average college one.

Be careful of small-school types. This is a big job. Be wary of journeyman big-school types. This job needs a fresh view and idealistic voice.

The list of potential coaches is already long, and will probably be reworked a dozen times before Haden actually starts officially searching, so simply reciting a dozen names here without supporting data makes no sense.


You know what USC needs? It needs to hire someone who is its third or fourth choice, someone who just happens to be on campus to watch his daughter play volleyball and decides to stop by Haden’s office to say hello.

Truly, the hiring of Carroll shows that USC’s next move can come from anywhere, at any time, as long as Haden is willing to trust the same instincts that led him to creating this vacancy in the middle of the night.

USC football was once the best show in town, and Haden is charged with finding someone with the boldness and genius to burn those bright lights again.

Finding Pete.

Twitter: @billplaschke